The Etymology of Medical terms 2


In my recent post about Etymology I said that I would introduce new terms on a regular basis  and as I had some suggestions from a follower of the blog I decided to investigate into the words.

The words are “Placebo” and Caesarian section” .





Placebo comes from the Latin “placebo”, meaning ” I shall please” from the translation by St Jerome ( 347-420 AD), and his translation of the bible –

” I will please the lord in the land of the living” ( Psalm cxiv:9). From this comes the name given for the rite of the Vespers of the Office of the Dead, a prayer made for all souls in purgatory in All Souls Day ( November 2nd).

In a medical sense it was first recorded in 1785 and in 1811 it was noted as ” a medicine given more to pelase than to benefit the patient”. And thus the word has been used widely in this context since then; in fact placebos were widespread until the 20th century. In 1903, Richard Cabot, and American physician, who was important for his advances in clinical hematology said that he was brought up to use Placebos but that he ultimately concluded  ” I have not yest found any case in which a lie does not do more harm than good”.  And nowadays, in 2011 Harvard Medical School started a Program in Placebo Studies – Program in Placebo Studies .




The Lex Caesarea (imperial law) of (715–673 BCE) required the child of a mother dead in childbirth to be cut from her womb. And there is speculation that the Roman dictator Julius Casear was born by the method now known as C-section. However, this is apparently false as Aurelia Cotta, Caesar’s mother, lived long enough to watch his triumphs and advise him on policies, and although caesarian sections were performed in Roman times there is no record of the mothers ever having survived.

The term has also been explained as deriving from the verb caedere, to cut, with children delivered this way referred to as caesones.Pliny The Elder refers to a certain Julius Caesar (not the famous statesman, but a remote ancestor of his) as ab utero caeso, “cut from the womb”, a godly attribute comparable to rumours about the birth of Alexander the Great.

This and Caesar’s name may have led to a false etymological connection with the ancient monarch. Notably, the Oxford English Dictionary does not credit a derivation from “caedere”, and defines Caesarean birth as “the delivery of a child by cutting through the walls of the abdomen when delivery cannot take place in the natural way, as was done in the case of Julius Cæsar”.

Some link with Julius Caesar, or with Roman emperors in general, exists in other languages, as well. For example, the modern German, Norwegian, Danish, Dutch,Swedish, Turkish and Hungarian terms are respectively Kaiserschnittkeisersnittkejsersnitkeizersnedekejsarsnittsezeryan, and császármetszés (literally: “Emperor’s cut”).The German term has also been imported into Japanese (帝王切開teiōsekkai) and Korean (제왕 절개 jewang jeolgae), both literally meaning “emperor incision”.

Finally, the Roman praenomen (given name) Caeso was said to be given to children who were born via C-section. While this was probably just folk etymology made popular by Pliny the Elder, it was well known by the time the term came into common use.


My thanks go to Chiara Barrattieri, a technical translator working in Rezzato, Italy. Thanks very much Chiara for your suggestions. I would be delighted for more. All the best, and until the next post.

English for Librarians by Elena Pastor

Elena Pastor and Jonathan McFarland

When I  first met Jonathan  I thought of the song by Gloria Gaynor “at first I was afraid, I was petrified…” because I wasn’t used to speaking in English. I told him that I needed to prepare myself to start a conversation. It took  me about five minutes and since that day we only speak in English. The strangest phenomenon that Jonathan caused in us is that you can hear a conversation between the Library team and him in English, pass to Catalan or Spanish and come back to English, and no, it is not a session, it is just a conversation. This is the best thing, learning a language has to be natural and not forced , and that is just  what has happened to us, step by step, everyone with different rhythms, we have improved our knowledge in this language and now it is part of our day to day life.

It is not just how much our English has improved in these years, but  how  by improving the language  it has helped my colleagues and me to improve as professionals.

English is important for health professionals because it is the language of science, librarians and documentalists support these health professionals and we need to know what, how and where to search for this information, and, unfortunately in Spanish we do not have best resources, and we need to complete our bibliographic searches there, but the emphasis is on international databases and all are in English.

In these years we have translated our sessions about the Virtual Health Sciences Library of the Balearic Island and given them in English, we have collaborated with Jonathan in some sessions in topics related with our Library and about Health 2.0, we have been to International congresses or meetings, where we have interacted with English speakers and without the need for help from interpreters.

Are you still wondering why librarians need to improve their English? We need it because it is part of our training, we cannot stop to learn throughout our professional life, the same as  the health professionals… New technologies and information management is the basis of our work and the great majority of this is in English, so we need to understand it to show you how to use it.

So, what is stopping you from knowing how the team formed by and Jonathan McFarland can help you?

The Virtual Health Sciences Library of the Balearic Islands